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The Philosophy of the Ghats

The Indian Rover (Issue : September , 2021)

The Philosophy Of The Ghats - Dr. Jayjit Sarkar

The Ghats of Banaras along the Ganga are different moments in history and the steps which lead up to them, palimpsest.  And as one move up or down along the steps, either towards or away from the river, one can feel becoming a part of a moment, and then a moment, and then another. The city is the oldest living city in the world: an old city beside an old river; but as opposed to the Heraclitian river, Banaras, the city, is the world of Parmenides. The world of Heraclitus is the world of continuous change where everything is in a state of flux. The world of Parmenides is the world of permanence where everything is static.

The Ghats and the Ganga, the land and the river, for that reason, give us two different perspectives. If one is standing at the ghat, one sees this mighty river, seemingly having no beginning and no end, flowing tirelessly and uninterruptedly. The Ganga is the Indian civilization’s ‘stream of consciousness’: the stream which has been collecting numerous voluntary and involuntary memories from time immemorial (or perhaps, a time before memories) to the present day. This is the perspective the Ghats provide, making us aware of the very intransience and yet infinite aspects of our existence: that the world is infinitely intransient. It is only when one gets a concrete and firm ground that one can see things really moving. It is not the same river which one encounters every time one stands at the Ghats. “One cannot” Heraclitus opined “step twice into the same river”. 

On the other, if one takes a boat ride along the Ganga, as in Keki N. Daruwalla’s poem, one can have the perspective from the river. It presents before us a stubborn city, living since once-upon-a-time but since then refusing to change. The solidity of the Ghats is played out against the fluidity of the Ganga. It brings to us an awareness, a realisation that amidst the flux and the unrest that this world is, there are certain things which never change providing anchorage to life and, more appropriately, the sense which we make of our lives. The land-water at the Ghats is a symptom of place-time double bind, of land as finite place and water as infinite time, of the city as ego or aham and the river as no-ego or brahma.

This is what I call the darshan, the philosophy, of the Ghats of Banaras. The word darshan is often mistranslated as “to see”, but rather the word is more about “making oneself seen or visible” in front of the one who is seeking. In darshan, the agency is with the seen and not with the seer. It is in the way the Ghats make themselves seen and the way the Ganga makes itself seen that one can find joy in seeing. It is because of this sheer joy that the sages and the poets over the past couple of centuries and more recently tourists from different parts of the world have flocked to these Ghats: located at the threshold of longing and joy. 

The ghats (‘the bank; something upon which one can rely’) anywhere are strange, undefined spaces; and yet it is a space of assurance, the assurance of a land if you are in water and the assurance of a water body if you are on land. The land assures of a ‘promised water’ and water that of a ‘promised land’. But it is only at the Ghats of Banaras that moksha or salvation is promised. Manikarnika, especially, assures you that once you come here, you will not return: return to this life and in this form— but can come back in the form of another life. And thus, the Ghats in Banaras ensure that the cycle continues, and continues infinitely.  

The longing with which one gets down from the rickshaw and walks through narrow, dark alleys cusped between the archaic, almost dilapidated walls of the old city and arrives at a ghat and sees the apparently tranquil but actually restless waters of the Ganga flowing eastward, is also the moment when the longing and subsequent joy of the seer finds a company in the longing and anticipatory joy of the river to be one with the sea.

It is in these moments that the philosophy of the Ghats of Banaras comes alive and making the city, as a result, the oldest living city in the world. It presents before us a life-world of contrasts cohabiting side by side. The stark images in the epigraph can also be traced in the following lines from Pankaj Mishra’s The Romantics, a novel based in Banaras:

“On Harishchandra Ghat, among piles of wooden logs and mounds of swept-ashes, there was a lone burning pyre, and the grieving friends and relatives of the deceased stood motionless around it. At Kedar Ghat, the piercing oboe-like sounds of shehnai from a wedding procession travelled over the water in brief gusts. Up ahead in the far distance, a train rattled across the Dufferin Bridge, its windows flashing the last of the day’s sunlight.”   

Bio :

Jayjit Sarkar is Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Raiganj University, India.

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